Bradford City, Brentford away and conformational bias

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh, Matthew Bates | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Chris Parkinson, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean | Gary Thompson, Andy Gray, Adam Drury

The words we are looking for are “conformational bias”.

You know how when you look at your watch and it is always 11:11 except it is not always 11:11, it’s just that you only remember the times you look at your watch (well, phone) is when it reads 11:11 and you forget all the other times you look at your watch (well, phone). That is conformational bias. We remember the times that support our hypothesis and forget the ones which do not.

(By the way Uri Geller believes that it is always 11:11 and has lots of very curious ideas on the subject which prove nothing at all and are basically confirmations of conformational bias)

Being a Bradford City supporter at the moment is to be judging between (at least) two different conformational bias. Phil Parkinson’s team are not performing as well this season as they did last season and a 2-0 defeat at Brentford is seen as confirmation that Parkinson is not good enough or it is not because a team in City’s position would not expect to go to a promotion chaser and win is seen as contradicting that and is thus ignored.

Likewise the two wins in a week were confirmation that Parkinson was “the man for the job.”

A lifeless first half in which neither side threatened goal much was a confirmation of how canny Parkinson was to keep things tight and try steal a point from a team which ends the day third but the fact that City were unable to do that because of second half goals from the generally annoying Clayton Donaldson and George Saville shows how limited Parkinson’s plan is.

Without James Hanson up front and Andrew Davies at the back against a team in good form the afternoon always seemed beyond the visitors and again one is stuck between scenarios as to why. Parkinson gave up the game and rested his two players because even his full strength side would struggle on the one hand and that is the smart thing to do on the one hand. On the other Parkinson’s side’s failings are his failings and depth of squad is squarely amongst those failing.

It does seem like the team that finished seventh last season/the team that went to Wembley twice – pick your own description to continue the theme of this article – have reached a plateau. While Brentford trooped off at half time unimpressive it never looked like the area between Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates would not afford Donaldson a chance during the afternoon and so it did when Donaldson drove in low. Only his proficiency stopping him adding another later but Saville gave the scoreline a perhaps undeserved polish. The Londoners edged most things on the day – but not by much – although Will Grigg and Adam Forshaw provided everything a League One midfield needed to go twenty two games with only a single defeat or twenty three games with two, if you are that way inclined.

City’s midfield is the start of the limits that Parkinson faces by by no means the end of the. Gary Jones has made a virtue out of the level of dedication he puts into all things and he will know more than anyone that the number of games he has at League One level is limited but – in my never humble opinion – he remains value for his place on his performance and the energy he puts into it which one only wishes was matched by Nathan Doyle. Doyle displays last year were excellent but that has been the exception in a career which has seen him more often than not fall below the standards he reaches on his better days on too many of his days. Doyle can play better, and has often, and to be a reliable part of Parkinson’s team next season he has to.

Kyle Bennett remains a mystery to me, Adam Reach continues to let how impressive he is one moment stop him impressing the next. Aaron McLean works hard and for that he will remain in Parkinson’s side because Parkinson prizes that above all else.

And if one agrees with that philosophy then a defeat like today is just a part of the grind. The fact that the club will shake itself off and go to the more winnable game at Colchester with more fit players is confirmation that the manager knows what he is doing. Looking at the table City have twelve games left to play and need as many points to reach fifty three which would guarantee safety. That simply requires Parkinson’s side to score points at the same rate that it has all season.

If one does agree with the hard working philosophy (or perhaps does not agree with something else that sets one to suggest that Parkinson is doing something wrong) then it is unacceptable not because it is a defeat but because all defeats highlight problems because it offers confirmation that there is a problem.

So one is left to decide if retaining a place in League One for next season represents progress or a problem.

League Two preview – what’s the right way to get promoted?

There was something symbolic about the transfers of Ben Davies from Shrewsbury Town to Notts County and Nicky Law from Bradford City – indirectly – to Rotherham United.

The Magpies and The Millers have taken on the mantle of possessing the division’s biggest playing budgets from The Shrews and The Bantams, coming with it the expectations of League Two domination. The balance sheets point to both County and United celebrating promotion come May, though the fact City and Town were unable to press home such advantages, while apparent lesser teams succeeded instead, should as a cautionary tale.

Typically for a division which saw four of its 24 participants the subject of points deductions last season, matters in League Two are far from clear. Just like the Premier League’s so-called big four, who have each managed to rack up huge debts despite the advantage of Champions League revenue year-on-year, the good news stories that emanated from teams who finished at the top of League Two last season were in limited supply.

Exeter and Gillingham’s elevation aside – the former stunned everyone including probably themselves by taking the third automatic promotion spot – and behind each manager’s words of praise for “a great set of lads” was a bank balance in the red. Andy Scott rightly received plenty of plaudits for leading Brentford to the title, but the growing debts acquired along the way suggest it came at a price that must surely slow progress eventually.

Then there was runners up Wycombe, a club previously well-regarded as one of the pioneering supporter-owned clubs, who changed their rules a few years ago to allow businessman Steve Hayes to loan significant money in return for running the club as managing director. Wycombe have subsequently run up a £7 million debt, owed to Hayes, by seemingly spending beyond their means. Hayes graciously agreed to write off £3 million of it in return for 100% ownership of the club, ground and training facilities. He is also the owner of London Wasps and has announced plans to build a new 20,000 capacity stadium for both clubs, moving them out of the 11,000-capacity Adams Park which neither can fill. Somehow it seems unlikely Hayes will ultimately end up out of pocket from writing off that debt.

At least Brentford and Wycombe succeeded through less-than-prudent financial planning, the same can’t be said of Darlington. While most football fans will have sympathy for a club saddled with a white elephant of a stadium which is compromising their existence, the mood locally is less charitable. As with many clubs who go into administration, like City, the local community is suffering from the Quakers’ latest spell in financial limbo. The St Johns Ambulance charity is reportededly again left out of pocket – by £2,500– while one local hotel owner claimed she could go out of business as a result of the club failing to pay money owed for accommodating loan striker Liam Hatch.

All of which leaves the question of what price promotion into League One at the end of this season is worth? While we can all cast envious glances at Meadow Lane and the Arab-based consortium now in charge, few Notts County fans will surely believe the new owners’ motivation is anything less than a healthy return for the investment within five-ten years. The media glare will fall on City’s visit to County this Saturday with Sven Goran Eriksson appointed as Director of Football, but he and County’s success will be judged by how long he holds that role. Will the new owners take the approach Man City have so far in backing the manager, or will it be more like at QPR? It’s not difficult to envisage Eriksson in the away dug out when County come to Valley Parade in January, a scenario which would suggest things weren’t going to plan. As Stuart McCall can testify, it takes time to learn what it takes to succeed in League Two.

County have made some decent summer signings, but finished 19th last season – 10 points above relegation, 22 points from the play offs and 38 points off the title. A huge improvement is needed to live up the pre-season hype and this season looks set to be more of a transitional one.

A far better shout for promotion is Rotherham. But for their 17 point deduction, the Millers would have finished fifth. Mark Robins is proving himself to be a determined and talented manager and has a great chance to bring the title to South Yorkshire. As valued as that would be for the supporters, there is still much long term work needed for a club which has been on the financial brink too often in recent years. The Don Valley stadium’s un-football friendly set up is a good home advantage to have, but a horrible place to watch football. As important as money on the playing squad is, the new owners may need to find money to build a new stadium back in Rotherham as part of the council’s plans to build a community stadium.

Two clubs expected to be in the hunt again with no such off the field concerns are Rochdale and Bury. Both were beaten in the play off semi finals, but have good managers who can ensure they bounce back from such disappointments. Bury continue to hold onto the talented Andy Bishop while Dale striker Adam Le Fondre is blossoming into the sort of striker Keith Hill’s talented side of two seasons ago lacked. Other contenders will probably include Chesterfield, now managed by John Sheridan, and Bournemouth who picked up so well at the end of last season to avoid the drop.

Newly promoted Torquay will hope to replicate their Devonshire rivals Exeter in sailing through the division, while of those who were relegated from League One last season, Cheltenham may be in the best position to bounce back. Northampton are struggling financially, while Crewe no longer appear to be the stable club others aspired to be of a few years ago. City and Shrewsbury may have had to cut budgets, but should both still be strong enough to feature in the promotion-hunting pack.

Last season’s relegation battle was something of a non-event, with points deductions allowing many to sail through a nothing season in the comfort of mid-table. It might have been a great opportunity for some of the division’s traditional strugglers to build and move away from the dangers of non-league, and some may soon be kicking themselves should they be sucked back into such trouble this season. Accrington, Macclesfield, Aldershot and Barnet all appear likely contenders to be scrapping it out at the bottom, though newly promoted Burton’s momentum from previous manager Nigel Clough may continue to slow as it did towards the end of last season, ensuring their league status is short lived.

Hoping to be free of such matters and in the safety of mid table, with more than an eye on the play offs, are Lincoln, Hereford, Colin Todd’s Darlington, Grimsby, Port Vale and Morecambe. Dagenham were close to a play off spot last season, but have lost some of their star players and may struggle to hit such heights again.

Selling players – one of the traditional ways lower league clubs thrive. With two of last season’s four promoted teams succeeding by spending beyond their means, the question of who has the largest playing budget isn’t perhaps the most applicable when predicting the division’s promotion winners. Hereford were promoted two seasons ago largely due to bringing in loan players that they could never otherwise afford, but last season spent nothing and were relegated while Stockport, who spent beyond their means and ended up in administration, stayed up.

The ones celebrating promotion next May might prove to be the ones prepared to take the biggest gambles, though the same might apply to anyone who ends the campaign with points deductions or an uncertain future.

A story in the telling

There is a nervousness as three o’clock passes and Bradford City – so long in the last chance saloon – kick off against League Leaders Brentford who arrive at Valley Parade looking to start this endgame of the season with a win they need to cement promotion.

Who on Earth will replace Ces Podd? Podd is a legend and we are throwing in some skinny kid who loves Leeds United to replace him. He is sixteen too and very ginger.

Thorne is on the floor. It is spent. It is all lost. The clock is, as always, the demon that devours Eden and after the City number ten put Steve Jones’s centre towards goal only for Brentford keeper Ben Hamer to save.

The Bees are £10m in debt and believe that promotion will help lessen that deficit and to that effect they have pulled in a clutch of players on loan from the higher leagues like Billy Clarke, Damian Spencer and keeper Ben Hamer who is quickly into the action as the Bantams enjoy the better of the early exchanges. Spencer – for example – has arrived from Cheltenham in League One who need to cut their wage bill. It would seem that if City would like promotion then Brentford need it to increase income as expenditure raises.

The kid is doing well and Oldham seem to be interested in him but he seems to be able to play a bit. Hopefully he will stay cause Trevor Cherry thinks he can do something in the middle. Nice to see some spirit in the side and the kid has that.

Stuart McCall has sent City out to play a tight four-man midfield and his plan seems to have some merit with the Dean Furman and Paul McLaren middle of the pitch trading blows all afternoon with the confidence brimming Brentford and perhaps shading the midfield battle.

It was the last minute and all is spent because Thorne is on the floor and Hamer has saved City’s last chance to level up the game and, perhaps deserved and perhaps in short measure, this promotion push has faulted for the final time.

The spine of the team is impressive. Jacko at the back, Bobby up front and the kid in the middle pushing and prompting. We are going to be champions this year and the kid is unbelievable.

McCall’s selections have been causing concern for many all season. Chris Brandon – denied from the line up for most of the season – is back and looked useful forcing a save out of Hamer after good work on the right. Brandon his the ball low and Hamer’s save was the equal of a reaction stop Rhys Evans made earlier form a free kick that deflected off Graeme Lee when driven at goal.

Brandon on the left was more successful than Keith Gillespie on the right who struggled. One can only guess what has gone on with Joe Colbeck – the fact that he does not even feature on the bench is clearly not just because he is out of form – but Gillespie and Jones have been incapable of replacing the drive of the winger who starred at the start of the season.

It is all spent because there is no Barry Conlon to troll the ball home as he did earlier in the season and Hamer will claim Thorne’s late stab at goal and give the league leaders a 1-0 which they might not deserve but have worked for and will take and City will fail.

Back home now and The kid is the captain. The kid’s contribution has been immesurable.

Gillespie brings to mind the Pitcher of Piazza, New York Catcher. He has the skills but his body is unwilling. He puts the ball past a man and would have got to the ball but now lack the yard of pace. Given a choice between trying to nurse Gillespie into form or Colbeck back I would want Joe back in the side but management is often about things unseen.

It is all over because City have failed to win promotion and not even reaching the play-offs, the result of this 1-0 defeat, will see Stuart McCall leaving his club, our club and no longer will we have the hope that McCall brought. It is all over for McCall and for us and everything is lost.

Nevertheless City gave as good as got in the first half. Thorne had a useful chance that Hamer saved and Graeme Lee hit a fierce free kick that the keeper was well placed and took to chest.

An inch off the top division. The kid is going to leave but he has done us proud. The kid says he will be back. He says “unfinished business.”

A word for the referee David Foster who unsurprisingly failed to shower himself in glory. His bookings for Dean Furman and Paul McLaren set an early and harsh precedent that he failed to maintain to ludicrous levels once Damian Spencer had picked up a deserved booking for persistent fouling. Spencer jumped around Matthew Clarke and went blindly into Rhys Evans as the keeper scooped up the ball which could only been dangerous play and should have been a second booking but was not.

It is all over because Peter Thorne is on his haunches in the penalty area. He is on the floor. We were wrong.

Likewise Dean Furman – booked in the first half – made a lunging tackle from five yards away which (I believe) got the ball but resulted in a free kick and thus was given as a foul and as such should have seen Furman given a red card. Billy Clarke flicked the ball away as City prepared to take a free kick and should have been given a second yellow card but was not. The rules of football are not mutable on the basis of the outcome of breaking those rules.

Clarke was booked for removing his shirt in celebration of a well worked goal that gave Brentford the lead. Clarke darted in front of Graeme Lee and wrong footed Evans before peeling away to the joy of his team mates and his booking. It was a well worked move that would cut open many a team but it was telling that it was one of few times that the effervescent leaders breached the Bantams defence.

A night in Italy and the corner comes in and there he is – blue shirt on – on the floor pushing out a leg to poke the ball past the Swedish keeper. The kid. The kid has six league titles, the kid has scored two in the FA Cup final, the kid beat Leeds. The kid has come back.

Brentford taking the lead deflated the Bantams and let the air out of Valley Parade. Michael Boulding – benched in favour of Paul Mullin who won lots in the air but seemed on a different wave-length to Peter Thorne – came on to make a three man forward line and Steve Jones replaced Gillespie on the wing.

It is over because they key to this season was not keeping Throne fit because even a fit Thorne is on the floor and in the mud and on the damned floor in the penalty area after Hamer has saved his last minute shot and the ball is bouncing between them but it does not matter because Thorne is on the floor.

The Bantams had forward motion but seemingly not belief – at least little belief around the ground – but it was noticeable that following the goal Brentford moved back twenty yards and tried to defend. Furman buzzed around trying to win the ball from the two lines of four and showed a will to get something from the games he challenged Adam Newton heavily pushing both into a signboard at the side of the field: “Ever had unprotected sex?” it asked, Newton just had.

Gareth Whalley has the ball and is running away from the box as Wolves pile on the pressure. The Ref blows his whistle and eyes scan, looking for the kid, arms aloft. The kid.

Nevertheless the game ground down and it seemed that City would lose and fall behind Chesterfield in a possibly fatal blow to play-off and promotion hopes. There was a cross in from the left that Steve Jones hit the ball across the box and Peter Thorne – on his second attempt – stabbed the ball home to raptures, fans spilling onto pitch and general wondrous excitement.

It is all over because Peter Thorne is on the floor as the ball is sliding towards him and Hamer starts to look worried but it is all over.

So Stuart McCall takes his City team to Morecambe on Friday while Shrewsbury Town – who drew with Grimsby Town and a goal from Barry Conlon – play Bury but by then Chesterfield could have gone seventh if they beat Lincoln City on Tuesday. Wins are the order of the day and this draw when all is done is not the sea-change in performance that the Bantams needed.

Shot after shot, game after game, getting battered, still in with a chance. Last day of the season and the kid will not stop running until that final whistle. That glory.

Peter Thorne climbs from the mud and the dirt and Hamer is scrambling towards him but the City striker has fixed his eyes on the ball as if he – out of everyone – does not realise it is all over.

Not a sea-change but a start and one that the Bantams can push on from and perhaps that is not a benefit that will be felt this season but maybe that will be next. I think we have to let our manager – whoever he is – build something rather than taking the attitude that chopping and changing will eventually yield results which is seldom does.

Myers and the kid. There is blood. Twelve months later the kid is gone again and everything has gone to Hell.

Peter Thorne is getting off the floor.

Let the manager build, let him doing a job, if he fails this year then let him try again next year because I believe we are not going to get anyone who wants to do well for this club more than McCall does and we are not going to find anyone who can put that feeling into the team than McCall has.

The kid is back but everything is a struggle. It looks like the kid has cracked it and we are doing well but the wheels have come off the wagon and we have fallen out of the play-off places. The kid is on the radio. He sounds down. He sounds flat. The kid is on the floor.

Today City kept going long after the support had accepted defeat and that is all I want from the manager’s team and from City and all perhaps that anyone should want.

If you don’t like that then sue me.

The Bantams looking for the knack

The Bantams go into this game looking for a first win in five, and with only one goal in the same amount of games. City are only one point out of the play off places and need to get back to winning ways to cement a chance to go to Wembley. Chesterfield are steaming up the league after a string of impressive results which only the likes of Brentford have managed of late.

The away game at Griffin Park earlier in the season was another of City’s losses on the road against the top teams in the league. It has to be said though, based on reports an account of managers and players alike, but for a free kick that shouldn’t have been, City would have taken a point from that game. Ironic that it is that point that keeps us out of the play off places at this stage.

So Brentford visit Valley Parade on Saturday looking to strengthen their grip on the League Two title. Andy Scott has done a terrific job with the resources at his disposal and it is teams like Brentford that City look at can only wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, Brentford have lost to Chesterfield, and drawn with Gillingham not forgetting the floodlight debacle away at Dagenham when live on Sky. One wonders if the re-scheduled game will be re-broadcast, something which is far too familiar…

A positive to take from the Chester result was the clean sheet. Although City have only scored one in five, Stuart McCall should be able to call on the services of Peter Thorne, who its hoped has recovered from a neck injury that has kept him out of the last couple of games. Who Thorne will partner up front is yet to be seen, though I get the feeling the ex Norwich man will work well with Paul Mullin, who whilst working hard in the last couple of games, has done nothing suggest he will be the remedy to Bradford’s scoring worries. If Thorne is not fit, expect Michael Boulding to be up top along side Mullin, and if Thorne is fit I would not be surprised if McCall reverts back to the centre forward pairing that had most League Two managers quaking in their boots in early season.

Rhys Evans keeps his place in goal after an eccentric performance at Chester, and a back four of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien will be tasked with keeping the away team from scoring. There are calls for Paul Arnison to be recalled at right back, which I personally agree with. Not for his defending ability over Rehman, but his ability to get forward and not ignore the right winger in front of him. If City are to prosper on Saturday, the full backs could well be important assets to the attacking mentality.

Midfield is certainly the problem area for Stuart at present. It seems Dean Furman is the only definite name on the team sheet at present. The little South African is sure to be playing first team football for Rangers next season, with rumour of Barry Ferguson departing to Russia in the summer. Stuart then gets to pick from three of the following: Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Nicky Law jnr, Keith Gillespie, Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Joe Colbeck.

Personally I would go for McLaren alongside Furman in the middle (he was the only player to consistently find another City player with the ball on Saturday) and Jones and Colbeck on the wings. Nicky Law has looked tired of late, and I for one would like to see him rested for a few games, with the potential to have a big impact on the play offs. Jones although sometimes flatters to decieve, has looked like a player who can make something happen, and with Thorne back in the mix, this bodes well for City. Colbeck gets my shout because in times like this, you need your home grown players who wont shirk a tackle, will die for the cause and more importantly will run and turn the opposition defence, something which City have not done enough lately.

This is an important game for the Bantams, and could be more so pending Chesterfield’s result on Tuesday night. Lets get behind the boys and push for that play off spot. Yes its Brentford, and yes they are on a decent run but in this League, anyone can beat anyone and City have this knack of beating teams at the top when they are up against it.

Billy Painter at Bristol City anyone?

Bradford City and financial reality

Commercial reality works two ways in football. The fans and the directors may look at money matters from different perspectives, but the club is still there in the middle. David Baldwin and Mark Lawn have both been telling the media in the last few days how they see that reality at Bradford City. Fans trying to come to terms with short-time working or no work at all can hardly be expected to forget about four consecutive defeats before the deadline for the cheapest tickets passes.

Bradford City are victims of their own publicity in two respects. At the start of last season the manager said that anything less than promotion would be a failure. So, by those standards, a failure it was. This season it was the board’s turn to explain on more than one occasion how they had put together a budget that they expected to produce a £600,000 loss, which would be justified by the much hoped for promotion.

In this respect City are not alone. Brentford, for example, are apparently aiming to wipe out the best part of a £10 million debt by getting themselves promoted. Just how the prospect of League One football produces anything like that amount of extra income may baffle some of us, but Brentford’s board are best placed to decide these things. And we won’t even begin to consider how Darlington’s business plan for the season depended on gates of almost double their actual attendances.

But by far the best piece of publicity City have achieved in recent years, even bringing them a trip to the House of Commons (I wonder what the second prize might have been!), was the cheap season ticket deal from two years ago. In those days when Julian Rhodes was the only chairman we had, he made it plain that the offer would only be taken up by the club if 10,000 or more supporters signed up for the deal. You do not need to be Einstein to work out the sums. Then along came Mark Lawn and his money, which allowed a little bit of juggling to extend the deadline for those 10,000 and eventually, including the free tickets for under elevens, over 12,000 were on the list.

The disappointment of a mid-table finish reduced that number by 1,000 or so for this season, but the excitement of automatic promotion prospects kept the idea very much alive for next season. The cheapest tickets (£99 in the Bradford End, but generally £150 for an adult) had to be bought by the end of December and then the £175 ticket deadline was the end of this month. The December sales went well, not least because on deadline day the team was just goal difference away from an automatic promotion spot. The later sales, we now know, have gone less well and it isn’t difficult to see why.

The problem, however, is that within two years the fans have come to regard a revolutionary idea as something perfectly normal. Those running the money side of the club are desperate to point out the huge price differences between City season’s tickets and those at virtually every other club in this league. It is, in my view, unfair to single out any individual club for comparison, such are the vast differences between the have-nots and the have-even-lesses of the fourth division. But, if you take the average price of season tickets in this league, City’s prices will be as far below as our average gates are above those of our rivals.

A few things clearly need spelling out. The first is that the prices for 2009-10 are fixed, no matter how many people take up the offers available before or after the end of March. Any scrapping of the cheap ticket scheme will not be before 2010-11.

Whatever income the club gets from its season tickets goes a very long way toward fixing the players’ budget. Match by match income is unpredictable and guesswork is no way of running a business that has, to say the least, had its recent financial problems. So every season ticket that isn’t sold is that much less to spend during the summer on players’ contracts.

Of course fans are currently very disappointed about recent form, none more so than those who have spent money, which brings no benefit to our club, in watching defeat after defeat away from home. That disappointment will only grow if promotion by one means or another is not achieved. Such are the expectations which nobody has seriously tried to dampen. Nor should anyone be anything other than positive.

But football fans generally concentrate on matters on the field of play, sometimes paying insufficient regard to matters behind the scenes. Whether it be £175 this month or £250 next, a Bradford City season ticket is great value in the fourth division, even if the product may not do exactly what it said on the tin, and excellent value in the third. For some fans, the state of their finances will have deteriorated since they bought this year’s season ticket. No football club can ignore that, but, equally, no club can lower their prices to the extent that would help those on a vastly reduced income.

The question that the rest of the fans have to face is whether they are prepared to pay £175, £250 or the instalments plan of £200 to give Bradford City the best chance of having a strong squad in 2009-10, regardless of which division they are playing in. The alternatives – a weaker squad and/or paying £20 a game and presumably not getting to as many, if any, matches – are just about all there is to consider. This is the financial reality of being a Bradford City supporter.

The league could shake this week as administration Thursday nears

One could hardly have guessed it this morning reading a collection of newspaper headlines about Christiano Ronaldo will leave England because of a lack of protection from Referees and how one side of Manchester are being told they should pay £30m for a player who could not find the net on the other side that around a tenth of the professional clubs in the country are battling with the decision as to whether they should go into administration by Thursday.

Thursday – the third in March – is football’s deadline for having ten point penalties given to the current season’s total rather than next. The problems of exiting administration are such a fifteen point penalty on exiting without the CVA that City twice had in place is practically guaranteed should you be looking a wiping out debts for the start of next season and not be under administration by Thursday then a club would start the year on minus fifteen and not minus twenty-five and as AFC Bournemouth and Rotherham have proved – that is not a killer blow.

My thoughts on punishment for clubs entering and exiting administration differ from other but mostly these articles and the debate on the subject assume that the fifteen point penalty – which is discretionary – will be levied and not the punishment which Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy would unilaterally dish out which would be expulsion from the league.

The wording of the League’s rules is always hard to come by but to paraphrase would be to say that a club that exits administration without a CVA in place is expelled from the League unless there are exceptional circumstances which in the cases of Leeds United, Rotherham United, Luton Town and AFC Bournemouth there have been. If a circumstance happens every time it is not “exceptional”. The Football League were probably acting within the interests of protectionism in ensuring that they do not lose those four clubs and that is probably no bad thing.

That they continue to do so depends on how much sympathy the likes of Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy can drum up in his well meaning if scattershot campaign for good governance in football. If football becomes populated with enough Dunphys then the next vote on is a club can exit without CVA and retain a place in the League will be to the negative and someone will be cast down to the lowest of the low level of the football pyramid.

Bradford City’s governance is managed by virtue of a chunk of cash put in by Mark Lawn who hopes that attendances can be retained for future season. That we have not brought in player x or player y down to an unwillingness to go back down the route of unrealistic debt and something that we should all be happy about as City fans.

What must Chris Dunphy feel about Brentford – £10m in debt and hoping for promotion to pay the bills – running away with the League Two? Probably the same as I feel but Chris Dunphy gets a vote he could mobilise against them if they end up in the poor house. Would Chris Dunphy vote that Luton, that Rotherham, that Leeds should have been thrown out of the Football League and effectively ended as football clubs?

This is the judgement the reportedly ten clubs who are considering entering administration in the next two days are making. Will they be added to the list of exceptions or will the hand become the wrist and will one, two, five, ten clubs not be making it to next season?

And if they do will they be taking ten point penalties that mean the table on Friday will differ drastically from that on Wednesday?

Why I feel empathy for Darlington fans but anger at Darlington as they go into administration

The news that Darlington went into administration at 15:00 on Wednesday and the ten point penalty that comes with that helps City’s promotion bid no end but as a development in football it could not be less welcome.

The Quakers are doing well in League Two but struggle to be financially viable with a massive stadium – it is bigger than Valley Parade – and low attendances making the business of football in that corner of the North East especially hard to manage.

The club were in administration as recently as 2004 and – as with City – are having their second slump into enforced financial controls is a result of falling attendances blamed on the credit crunch and an inability to maximise rental revenues from land around the stadium both of which – while regrettable – were too predictable to reliable part of the last CVA which they (one suspects) did.

Oddly enough Bradford City have found a way to address the falling attendance revenue and maximise the size of the stadium although Mark Lawn has recently cast doubts as to the long term viability of the cheapest season tickets in football should they not be taken up by an enlarged mass of the Bradford population.

That Darlington could have learnt from City’s example in the way that Huddersfield Town have is more than an annoying hindsight and it would seem that the supporters of the Quakers are once again suffering from an unrealistic boardroom that assumed that the future of the club would be different by willing it to be so and shouting enough at the 97,000 or so in the area who do not follow the club.

Darlington are reported to need a crowd of 5,500 to break even and attract under 3,000. Without a change as City have done, a promotion or something else of significance it is simple mismanagement to expect that number to be added to by two thirds. Dave Penney’s sides are robust, sturdy, work hard but they played at Valley Parade two weeks ago and were not nice to watch. The lesson of precedence from other clubs coming out of administration suggests that to expect another two thousand bums on is naive to say the least. Yes, credit crunch and Yes, Premiership stealing supporters but when costs of running a club are planned to be offset against extraordinary activity then mismanagement is not far away.

All of which is a nightmare for Darlington’s supporters and a sobering for all football fans who would like to consign the era of administration to history. That no club in the Football League had suffered this fate this season was seen as progress and build confidence that ebbs away. Even the loss of ten points – while supposedly good news and arguably fair redress for a club living beyond its means – is scant recompense for continued damage to confidence that clubs being managed in this way does in the wider community in Darlington and beyond. For football’s economy to gain any internal parity or stability clubs in League Two level need to be run more correctly.

The Darlington side that played at Valley Parade had loan players like Liam Hatch – a £100,000 rated striker on the bench. Ambition and striving for promotion is a good thing but not when it is paid for by speculative ideas of increasing gate revenues. This is the kind of management that damages us all by association just as paying £55,000 a week for Benito Carbone in the expectation of him establishing Bradford City as a Premiership club or borrow against twenty years of Champions League money to let Leeds United “live the dream” became phrases used to describe the lack of realism in football planning.

What is bad for the tea and biscuit company is bad for me. I want a strong division and a strong Darlington who do everything within their powers to win promotion up to the point where they start risking the long term future of the club for the medium term aim of a promotion which – if not won – leaves the club in danger. Are Darlington risking their future to try get ahead or to keep up? At this stage it probably does not matter any more.

Today we talk about Darlington – and I feel empathy for the fans – while League Two leaders Brentford are reported to be in £10m which they hope to pay off with promotion. Hopefully Mark Lawn and many other chairmen have their clubs living within their means but to a lesser extent Darlington and certainly Brentford are creating a situation while clubs have to join in in risking their futures just to compete or accept playing on an unlevel playing field.

Puddings

Brentford 2 Bradford City 1- League Two 2008/2009

Like my mum’s Christmas pudding this defeat was hardest to swallow because it came late and followed a good meal.

City had played well during what seemed to be a 0-0 draw at Brentford and looked capable of doing to the home side what teams do to us. Frustrating and nicking a win.

With Omar Daley back and Paul McLaren having more say in the game the Bantams had the better of the early exchanges but despite Michael Boulding’s hard work the chances that came never seemed to sit up right. At the other end Paul Arnison was back at right back and the back four that went on to concede two goals looked solid as anything with Matthew Clarke especially impressive.

But, depressingly, the result of 2-1 came from a 94 minute header after City had clawed back from conceding a late goal. Boulding finished off to give City a draw that vanished not long after with the overriding fear being that if last week City drew the sort of game we would have won then this week we lost it and that without a change of luck or skill or whatever City will have a faltering challenge for promotion.

Next week at home to Chester we might see Dean Furman or Lee Bullock again but I’m worried that for all the skill of the returning players the spirit of the team has suffered.

Christmas will be telling. City need to avoid the pudding.

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Only the usual conclusion can be made

Just like video goalline technology, winter breaks and the declining tradition of the FA Cup – the opinion “it’s a poor league” is one uttered on an annual basis.

In City’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter which division we are in – even during our second season of the Premiership the national media spent a few concentrated weeks deriding the standard of the top flight – or how well we are doing, the opposition are always poor and City firmly part of such mediocrity. It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of supporters also hold no matter who their team is, every league is always poor.

When looking at this season’s League Two table it can be tempting to trot out such well-worn phrases. Discount the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham and the gap between top and bottom would be a measly 22 points after a third of the season. Everyone can beat everyone and, while that makes for an exciting and unpredictable league, it also leaves the playing standards open to accusations of poorness.

It’s been said that, unlike last season, there are no outstanding teams going to runaway with it like MK Dons and Peterborough; though a look at the League Two table this time last year offers few clues that was going to be the case. MK Dons had its noses in front, but Peterborough was back among traffic. This year Darlington and Wycombe hold the same advantage of the Dons, though the chasing pack remain closely on their tails. The six-point advantage both enjoy over ninth-place Bury is in contrast to a year ago where fifth-place Peterborough was seven behind MK Dons. Meanwhile the eventual Play Off Finalists, Stockport and Rochdale, were 15th and 17th respectively, a fact which will give Aldershot, Port Vale and Notts County inspiration this season.

Above those three are 12 clubs which retain credible aspirations of promotion, which illustrates just how competitive a league it is. That Wycombe remain unbeaten is a great achievement and the Buckinghamshire club will be hoping to turn a few more draws into wins to build on its impressive start. It remains to be seen how they will react to that eventual first defeat, but Peter Taylor has clearly been able to take the club forward after the good work of Paul Lambert last season.

Like Wycombe, Darlington lost in the play off semi finals last year but have responded strongly. Dave Penney is rumoured to be interesting Huddersfield and isn’t universally popular with Quakers fans, but on the evidence of games against the Bantams they look stronger this season. Much depends on if they can keep the impressive on-loan Billy Clarke, who’s Ipswich contract expires in January and is seemingly surplus to requirements.

Currently top of the of the six clubs on 27 points is Shrewsbury. Having spent big money on Grant Holt during the summer the Shrews are looking particularly strong at home and have a manager experienced enough to guide the club in lasting the distance. Rochdale has climbed after a slow start, though don’t quite appear as strong as last season. Brentford’s Andy Scott is cementing a reputation as one of the game’s bright young managers and Gillingham, relegated last season, are improving. The biggest surprise is Exeter still being up there, though the newly-promoted Grecians have suffered heavy defeats to City and Chesterfield suggesting they aren’t strong enough to last the pace.

Doubts which were also raised at Bury and Dagenham, which seem to be coming true as both fade away following impressive starts. Chesterfield and Lincoln, who both started slowly, are closing in and have the expectation and quality to force themselves into the top seven above.

Which just leaves the Bantams. Predictably Saturday’s defeat has lead to some fans writing off our chances of achieving anything better than a play off spot, but the injury situation which Stuart McCall is currently contending with is clearly going to slow things. Omar Daley is the only out-and-out winger fit and, while the Jamaican’s performances are remaining highly consistent, the lack of a similar threat on the other flank for a team which bases much of its style of play on the widemen is reducing chances for the forwards.

There are question marks still over the defence but, in general, the team has been able to respond to weakness at the back with potency going forward. The next few games may be a battle and not wield as higher a number of points as we’d like, but if City can approach Christmas in a similar position to now, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon due to come back, the prospects of a good run of form at the turn of the year are good.

It would take a brave man to bet on who will finish in the top three spots come May right now, but clearly the next segment of the season will be vital in reducing the number of possibilities. Next Saturday Lincoln entertain Shrewsbury; the Tuesday after Gillingham face Rochdale, who’s game after is Darlington away; City travel to Brentford the following Saturday; the Saturday after sees Shrewsbury host Wycombe. With the Christmas fixtures including Rochdale v Shrewsbury, Darlington v Chesterfield and Gillingham v Wycombe, the chances of anyone running away with it seem unlikely.

It’s a league where you don’t want to take your eyes off anyone, even if we are all ‘poor’.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

Lawn & Rhodes look at the easiest spin

One has to wonder what the reaction of Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes was at the “failure” of the 9,000 season ticket sale plan that only reached 8,296 adults giving a grand total of 10,707 holders at Valley Parade next season.

If it was not punching the air then it was probably a wry smile because while this is a public failure for the club in private the upside must have been talked about.

Had City sold 705 more season tickets then Stuart McCall would have had around £85,000 more in the kitty but the £1.25m generated will be more than most if not all clubs in League Two have. 95% of last season’s first stab at cheaper tickets has been generated.

The 9,000 free seats could have been filled by potential new supporters – the idea of giving the taste to would be fans for free in the hope that some are converted is a good one for a club that has twice as many seats as season ticket holders – but what atmosphere this would have created has been a worry.

What response would a person who will only go see a team if it costs nothing have had to going a goal down? Are they they sort of person who would by programmes and shirts? How would the paying fan have reacted to the freebies around him? How would he have reacted to having to park further away because of the extra cars from people who did not pay? To wait longer in the queues for the bars or the loos?

Such questions are avoided and while Lawn and Rhodes have a scheme that has failed to reach stated targets one cannot help but think that for many reasons the 700 fewer result is best for all. The 9,000 seats not given away for free can be resold. Commercial Manager David Baldwin must already be planning the Bradford City half-season ticket as the perfect Christmas present.

Should City be riding high then why not sell an 18 month for £200 this December cashing in on any extra interest that a claret and amber side at the top of League Two would have? This would not be possible with 9,000 extra seats claimed if not used.

Lawn and Rhodes could put on a face of failure for sure and for sure many will say this is a defeat but with over 10,000 coming in to see League Two football which is a greater average attendance then we ever got in League One then would be justified in coming out ebullient.

The spin to apply to this is not that the Bantams have failed to reach a target – it is that City are once again the best supported club in League Two.

Cheap season tickets – taking football back to supporters priced out by the sort of rampant increases of the post-Premiership years that have ripped into support levels and put off a generation of fans – is a significant movement in football. It started at Valley Parade last year and is being taken up elsewhere this. If 95% retention is common at Huddersfield Town, at Brentford, and at the other place that have adopted the policy then the permanent revolution in pricing will start to take hold.

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